A federal judge in Connecticut ruled Monday that two public high schools in Enfield, Conn., could not hold their graduation ceremonies on June 23 and 24 in a 3,000-seat church, First Cathedral, saying that this would violate the Constitution's 1st Amendment. "By choosing to hold graduations at First Cathedral, Enfield schools send the message that it is closely linked with First Cathedral and its religious mission, that it favors the religious over the irreligious and that it prefers Christians over those that subscribe to other faiths, or no faith at all," U.S. District Court Judge Janet Hall wrote, according to an article in the Hartford Courant. "In addition to the character of the forum, the history and context of the decision to hold the graduations at First Cathedral also support the conclusion that, in doing so, Enfield Public Schools has endorsed religion." Do you agree with the judge's ruling? Or do you think that it is appropriate for a public school to hold a graduation ceremony at a church, synagogue, mosque or other place of worship?
Just one year ago, a judge in Wisconsin ruled the other way, stating that holding a graduation ceremony in a church does not necessarily constitute a church ceremony. Any indoor venue that holds 3,000 people would be accommodating for a graduation. In this Connecticut case, the judge is either caving in to the demands of the
Fr. Stephen Doktorczyk
St. Joachim Church
Hospitality, such as would cause everyone to feel comfortable, should characterize a high school graduation ceremony. For this a proper venue is as important as are the other matters of good planning. The beautiful grounds of a cemetery would not be proper, nor would the brash environment of a casino. For the court to decide against the selection of First Cathedral should not be interpreted as a decision against religion but a defense of that which is appropriate at a community event.
Major churches often enough welcome selected community events that are congruent with the church's mission, but these events are for those who choose to attend. A public school graduation brings together a widely diverse gathering of folks, not all of whom would feel comfortable in First Cathedral. Why do that to people on such a felicitous occasion?
Did the school district make firm bookings for the next several years at a synagogue and a mosque? If it had done that, this question would be more interesting. But, as it is, I am surprised that the planners did not exercise better judgment, as would be expected of an educational institution.
Msgr. Wilbur Davis
Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church
A student who attends a public high school should not have to go to a church in order to "walk." Enfield should have used the tax money they wasted on this lawsuit to come up with an appropriate place for their graduation ceremonies. At my high school in Iowa, a stage was set up on the football field and families sat on bleachers. Religious organizations should hold their own services to mark this milestone. The baccalaureates I attended were sponsored by the churches, were separate from the graduation ceremony, and participation was voluntary — the way religion is best practiced in the United States.
Rev. Deborah Barrett
Zen Center of Orange County
I can see where the judge is coming from in his analysis and ruling on the issue of separation of church and state. However, the decision of the two public schools to hold their graduations at the First Cathedral is a good learning experience in respecting and understanding the role each institution plays in our lives irrespective of faith practices.
We are talking about graduating students who will be facing real life issues and challenged with church-vs.-state issues. There is no reason to be alarmed and concerned that the use of a faith-based facility is somehow going to infringe on the authority of the state or use of its resources or compromise rights and the Constitution. What the graduating students will learn is respect of authority. We are adult enough to know the difference, and the kids need to learn it and not confuse the issues.
M. Fareed Farukhi
Was linking to "religious mission" Enfield Public Schools' motivation or intention? Did Judge Hall suggest viable alternative host possibilities? If the answer to either question is yes, then I do agree with this federal judge's ruling.
Very secular groups use our sanctuary for meetings, lectures, concerts and recitals because of location, capacity, attractiveness and acoustics. While this is obviously a place dedicated to Christian worship, people have clearly been stimulated intellectually and ascetically without becoming religious. And our Episcopal Diocese has celebrated ordinations and consecrations in convention centers and sports arenas. Relationship of purpose and site need not always be predictable or harmonious.
(The Very Rev'd Canon) Peter D. Haynes
Saint Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church
Corona del Mar
The sanctuary of a church or synagogue can never be a neutral room by virtue of its having been designated and utilized for sacred use. Even a church auditorium is a part of a Christian complex of buildings. I would look askance at a public ceremony held in a space associated with the worship of Jesus. Nor would I want to pass Christian iconography on the way to my child's graduation from public school. Similarly, I would not expect my Muslim neighbors to be comfortable when witnessing their children's graduation in a Jewish sanctuary festooned with the flag of Israel and other Jewish imagery. A public school graduation should be held in a public facility that is not associated with any sectarian worship.
When asked by my relatives, "Where will the graduation exercise for your son be held," I would not want to answer, "First Cathedral."
Rabbi Mark S. Miller
Temple Bat Yahm
I can see the problem. If the sanctuary was reasonably free of religious icons and it truly felt like neutral ground, it might work, but if there were a strong feeling of religiosity it would not be appropriate. Those who were not of that faith would definitely feel foreign and uncomfortable. It is the same problem with prayer at school events. I know a lot of Christians can't see a problem with prayer at public events. For those who complain that our children are not affected by such prayers, I always wonder if they would be so receptive if an Islamic prayer that ended with "in the name of Allah" was spoken. This is why the founders of our country were so insistent on separation of church and state.
Pastor, Center for Spiritual Living
The judge was correct in deciding that a church is not a proper location for activities such as graduation ceremonies. Public schools contain students with a variety of religions, and school officials should not be put in a position of appearing to promote one religion over the others by approving a church for such ceremonies. There are many better options. Most schools have auditoriums that are perfectly adequate for such activities, or a cinema or other facility could be rented for the occasion. Outdoor ceremonies can be ideal in good weather. Selecting a facility that would expose students to proselytizing religious messages is purely wrong.